Heroin use is climbing in Pierce County and is bringing with it another potentially deadly partner: hepatitis C.
The disease might have infected thousands of county residents who use heroin and other injectable drugs, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, a potentially deadly infection that can cause cirrhosis or liver cancer.
“Cases of acute and chronic hepatitis C in Pierce County are on a dramatic rise, especially among young people,” said Kim Desmarais, a viral hepatitis coordinator for the health department.
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Before 2013, the county saw maybe five cases per year.
“Now we see up to five cases a month,” Desmarais said. The health department estimates those cases represent less than 10 percent of the actual total.
Pierce County saw 32 new cases of acute hepatitis C in 2016. Of those, 25 patients had injected drugs. 56 percent were between 18 and 35 years old.
Someone with hepatitis C can have the virus for years with no symptoms. During that time, the person can spread the virus to others through shared needles and other means.
Opioid abuse — from heroin to OxyContin — has skyrocketed in the past 10 years in Pierce County.
While the rate of treatment admissions was about 75 per 100,000 residents in 2007, it now stands at 175 and is climbing steeply, according to health department statistics. Heroin leads that trend.
People in the 18-to-29 age group make up nearly 60 percent of first-time admissions.
A 2015 survey of 77 needle exchange participants in the county found that 74 percent said they use heroin and 22 percent reported methamphetamine use.
The survey was by the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
The overall death rate from opioid use in Pierce County has remained stable, but heroin deaths are rising while prescription-type drug deaths are declining.
The health department tests, reports and monitors hepatitis C patients. It also makes sure they understand how to stop the spread of the virus, and find treatment options for the disease and for drug addiction.
There is a cure for hepatitis C, but treatment costs about $50,000.
The health department takes the position that syringe exchanges and drug treatment programs help curb the spread of hepatitis.
What you need to know about hepatitis C
▪ Abdominal pain.
▪ Loss of appetite.
Most at risk:
▪ People who have used injection drugs, such as heroin, even once.
▪ Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 (baby boomers) should get a one-time test, because that age group is five times more likely to have hepatitis C than the general population.
▪ People who had a blood transfusion before 1992.
▪ People who have HIV.
▪ People diagnosed with abnormal liver function.
▪ Babies of mothers who had hepatitis C while pregnant.
Source: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department